Panh’s films are all personal, but The Missing Picture, winner of the top jury prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is also autobiographical. Working with both archival footage and scenes shot with clay models, the 46-year-old director shares his memories of an idyllic childhood in Phnom Penh, the shock of his family’s forced move to the countryside when he was 13, and the four years he spent laboring in Pol Pot’s infamous “rehabilitation camps.” Panh spoke with Film Watch from his offices in Phnom Penh about the making of the film and the pieces of his past that are forever missing.
SHEERLY AVNI: How did you arrive at the idea of using clay to tell your story?
RITHY PANH: It started out as a very personal attempt to give shape to my own memories. We were all sent away from my house in 1975. And when I went back to look for my house, it of course no longer existed. Today, it’s a karaoke parlor. For my own benefit, I asked a guy from my crew to make a rough model for me. I had no idea he was a sculptor. I just asked him to make it out of wood, but he immediately said, “No, I want to use clay.”
It worked out well, because clay is also earth. You make it with water, you dry it with the sun—not too little, not too much—you work with your hands, and then little by little, you see something form. This is how cinema works. You follow one idea to another, getting closer and closer to finding the story you want to tell.
These aren’t just figurines. They are something else. They have a soul.
If you see a sculpture of Buddha in a museum in New York, you might think of it as a beautiful object, or a relic, of the 12th century, the 13th century. But for us, these statues have souls. We don’t just pray to statues, we talk to them, we cry to them.
Was it challenging to work in such a different medium, this form of animation?
Oh, yes, especially at first. As a sculptor, he is very talented, but he’s also young; he wasn’t born yet during the period of the film. I sat next to him while he carved, describing what I could remember—what people wore, what they were doing, how they lost weight… . It was very important that their faces be expressive and emotional. I wanted people to see their humanity.
Why was that so important to you?
I always try to focus on the individual, on what makes us human. Part of the Khmer Rouge project was not only to destroy individual people but to destroy the very notion of the individual. I want to simply rebuild the stories of people. It’s my part of the fight against the Khmer Rouge agenda.
In your book, you speak critically of the concept of “banality of evil” and suggest an alternative: the banality of good.
The expression by itself is seductive. It automatically exonerates us: Evil has always been there, it’s always a part of us, evil is no big surprise. But what about the people who gave freely, who stood up for human dignity? Even in the most extreme and terrible situations, these acts of dignity existed.
There are several powerful moments in The Missing Picture in which individual characters, including your parents, stand up for human dignity and each other.
It’s important for us survivors to remember we didn’t survive because we were stronger, or braver, or better. We survived because of the simple gestures—of love, of sacrifice, of solidarity—of other people. Sometimes, they protected us with their lives.
THE MISSING PICTURE | Cambodia, 2013, 90m | Director: Rithy Panh